Cusack goes mad for Poe

By Sophia Coleman

The work of Edgar Allan Poe is dark, otherworldly and filled with death. To tap into his mind is to experience the chaos of one of the world’s most famous and self-destructive poets.

In taking on the on the role of Poe, one must give in to his demons. None other than John Cusack, Evanston native and A-list actor known for his underdog and rebel roles, accepted the challenge and has created a multi-faceted depiction of Poe in “The Raven,” a film about a madman who commits murders inspired by the gruesome visions of

Poe’s poetry.

The Chronicle had the chance to sit down with Cusack April 15 at the C2E2 convention and discuss how taxing it was to play Poe, what his favorite scene was and what it was like to translate the troubled writer to the big screen.

The Chronicle: You have screenwriting experience and have co-written movies. What does writing mean to you, and how does it ultimately help you express yourself as an artist?

John Cusack: The writing I do, I never have to finish. I’m always writing for screen and acting. As you cut a film, that’s the final draft. In essence, that’s not totally true. I’ve written monologues for Ben Kingsley and comedies for Dan Aykroyd and I’ve thought, “Wow, I better get this right.” [But] screenwriting is sort of different than other forms of writing because it isn’t set in stone. My writing partner Mark Leyner, who wrote “War, Inc.” with me, has a crazy book out called “The Sugar Frosted Nutsack” that’s the most insane book you ever read. He’s a brilliant and bizarre writer. He came in and did a polish on “The Raven” with us because we wanted to make sure the setup was good. The device that Poe gets caught up in is a meta Poe thing where he becomes a character in one of his own stories, a sort of dream within a dream. We wanted to make sure there was enough historical accuracy and that we used as much of his language as we could. We wanted his vernacular and idiom up to the level where he was a master of the English language. Mark wrote a new Poe poem for the film, during the scene where the house is burning down. You have to be a real writer to do that.

The Chronicle: Was it an equally involved process to get into the physicality of Poe?

JC: We thought for sure we didn’t want to do the little mustache because we wanted to stay away from the Charlie Chaplin image. As much as I love all that, I thought it would be limiting. I wanted to get more of this feeling of the guy in his day. Obviously, he was dirt poor and a pretty bad alcoholic, so I got as gaunt as I could. I got down to about 190 pounds, which was below what I weighed in high school. I immersed myself in Poe’s material—his letters and writings—to get into that spook-house, graveyard vibe.

The Chronicle: What was the most memorable scene for you to film?

JC: I think the scene in the beginning when he comes in. You see him out at night and he’s looking over this carcass of a cat. Then he goes to the bar and you know what’s going to happen. He is portrayed as an addict, so he’s been there before. He wrote a great story called “The Imp of the Perverse” that is about the inner beast in himself. He has the need to do the exact wrong thing and [is] being drawn to the flame. [This scene is about] him going to that bar and knowing he’s going to get his ass kicked, but being drawn into it anyway and having all of those facets of his character [come through] before he gets kicked out. I thought that was a nice scene and a showcase for the acting, directing

and writing.

The Chronicle: Poe is ingrained in pop culture in many different forms, but he hasn’t been seen in theaters since Vincent Price’s films in the ’60s. Did you feel pressure bringing Poe back to life

theatrically?

JC: Yeah, but it wasn’t as much pressure as it was an opportunity because you have so much of his stuff out there. If you read about it, you know that he started so many different genres and styles, from science fiction to being punked and pranked to mystical things and gothic horror. There’s so much to take from, and once [Poe] gets caught up in his own genre, you can always go back to his letters and pull out his language. You’re never going to have a definitive version of a person, you know. This is one dream of Poe. If you can feel the underworld in the movie or out of my performance, that is great. It’s a weird blend of fantasy, fiction and legend. It’s a really good pop-pulp version [of Poe.]

The Chronicle: How difficult was it to stay in such a dark mindset throughout the film, and how did you recover from that?

JC: It was winter in Serbia and Hungary. We were shooting at night, so I sort of felt like a vampire anyway. I didn’t sleep much. I just sort of felt like I was on a bender for eight weeks. When I came back for Christmas Eve, I scared my family. They were like,“What happened? You need to eat. You look sick.” That took a while to shake off, but you know, it was cool.

“The Raven” opens in theaters April 27. Follow John Cusack on Twitter @JohnCusack for more information on the film and upcoming events

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